Rediscovering Nikko (Part 2 of 2)

As I touched on in the first part of this post, Nikko National Park is not far from Tokyo and so with even a one night stay here you can pack in two full day’s of “off the beaten path” sightseeing. Sure, you’ll see a good number of tourists at the most famous sites in Nikko (like Kegon Waterfall or the Unesco World Heritage listed Shrines and Temples) but if you dare to put in just a little bit of extra effort to get beneath the surface of Nikko’s natural and cultural history you will be amply rewarded. Continuing on from part 1, here are some more can’t miss sites that aren’t in the guidebooks just yet.

DSC_1175

A working waterwheel in Nikko National Park. This is one of only a handful of waterwheels that is not simply there for nostalgia’s sake but actually working to produce incense.

What better place to start your journey in Nikko National Park than with a visit to the area near Takao Shrine (pictured above). Altering shades of green roll across the landscape of verdant evergreens and giant sheets of rice paddies divided by small ditches that can be walked along for an experience that will completely surround you.

DSC_1177

The proud and friendly owner of the incense producing water wheel.

A highlight of visiting this area is a small hut with a water wheel that is near the shrine’s entrance. You might even hear the clickety clank of the water wheel’s gears before the old shack comes in to view. Surprisingly, this isn’t simply a water wheel that has been leftover from more rustic times,an old man uses the power of an irrigation stream to assist in making incense – a ubiquitous good in Japanese homes and temples.

DSC_1173

Wooden gears spin as the waterwheel turns. The noise is unforgettable!

The nearby Takao Shrine is equally interesting. Like the shrines and temples seen in Japanese movies, this one is surrounded by nature and sees only a few dozen visitors each day so you can often get it to yourself. The beauty of architecture is complemented nicely by the tall cedar trees that line the entrance. But unlike some of the masterpieces that you’ll find in Nikko proper, it’s the small details at this shrine that are most likely to stick with you.

DSC_1181

It may not look like much but if you take a ladle of that crystal clear water and pour it over the rocks, you will hear a beautiful ringing as the water drips into a massive brass bowl that resonates the sound below. Magical!

DSC_1183

Before you leave the area make sure to stop at the small restaurant at the bottom of the hill for some naturally produced shaved ice. Before I had tasted it, I questioned whether there was much of a difference between this “natural” shaved ice and the stuff my refrigerator churns out back in Tokyo but after having a few bites of the green tea sweet I have become a convert for life! If you want to see what goes in to make such a treat for the senses, check out the process with this video from Youtube.

 

The hard work is a labour of love for the 4th and 5th generation ice makers that oversee this process. They are Nikko locals and run their operations in the National Park so, if you’re there during the right time of year you can go and see this ice making process in person. And if you’re there in the summer you can simply enjoy some of the best shaved ice (kakigori) that you’ll find anywhere!

Moving on, we head to Heike no Sato a place of cultivated and natural beauty that is full of history. This collection of folk houses from around the area recreates the atmosphere of 800 years before, when a battle between rival clans sent the Heike warriors into refuge in Nikko’s mountains. If you aren’t making it to any other folk villages over the course of your trip to Japan then this is a must-see sight in Nikko National Park. You will come away with a far better understanding of the type of lifestyle that was still common up until the 1900’s.

DSC_1130

The picturesque entrance to Heike no Sato.

DSC_1150

The world renowned Akiko Sakurai performs at Heike no Sato. In the background you can see a Torii gate where the Heike clan worshiped in place of the original in their homeland – which they couldn’t go to because they were hiding from the victors whom had driven them here.

There is great food to be found in Nikko and plenty of variety to boot. But the one thing that you shouldn’t miss is surely yuba – a tofu like sheet that Nikko has become famous for. A particularly tasty yuba dish is available at Heike no Sato (pictured below).

DSC_1155

Enjoying some yuba, green tea and mochi at Heike no Sato.

Having already covered some of Nikko’s best sights you could easily relax at a cafe overlooking one of Nikko’s lakes or head to an onsen (hot spring) but if you still have a bit of energy left, why not go for a walk through the wilderness in Senjogahara. The path here is an easy walk with sweeping vistas of the National Park. Best of all, if you visit in different seasons you will find entirely new seasons waiting for you.

images

The boardwalk keeps you safely above the marsh beneath and, most importantly, protects the local habitat at the same time.

Trying to decide where to go in Japan is a difficult task to say the least. I’ve lived and worked here for nearly a decade and traveled extensively but there are so many places that I’m still longing to visit. But if you find yourself in Tokyo and your looking for a side of Japan that simply can’t be found in the city, head up to Nikko for a few days; you won’t be disappointed!

 

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 1 of 2)

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

For me, there is almost nothing better than going to a part of Japan that I have never been to before and seeing yet another facet of this wonderful country. But I am always amazed at how much there is to be discovered even in destinations that I have been to multiples times before. As the title might imply, the place in question this time is Nikko. Less than two hours from Tokyo, the main draw for most visitors are Nikko’s spectacular shrines and temples, rightly deserving of their World Heritage status. But there is far more here than what most visitors ever get to see. This is partly because the ease of making a day trip from Tokyo is often preferred over the more rewarding but slightly more difficult option of staying overnight and getting out into the countryside to see a completely different side of Japan. This multiple part blog post is about some of the places worth visiting in Nikko National Park.

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

The Ryuo Gorge is not only beautiful, it’s also one of the easiest places in Nikko National Park to access by train. From the hot spring resort of Kinugawa Onsen, a jumbling little train whisks you through dense forests to a quiet little station near the entrance of a walking path that takes in lush scenery and will have you wondering if the bright neon of Tokyo was just a dream. But as the picture above can attest to, it’s not just the escape from concrete that makes this a deserved stop on your itinerary. The colorful locals and delicious freshly caught river fish make this an all-around cultural experience. Throw in a couple cups of sake and a dip in the hot spring at the end of a long walk and you can have a quintessentially Japanese experience all in an afternoon.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Speaking of sake, if you’re thinking of visiting a sake brewery, you’d be smart to be picky about the one who visit for, alas, not all sake breweries are created equal. But fear not, for Nikko has a sake brewery of unparalleled greatness. Not only are the brews here about as tasty as you’ll find, the owner is as nice a man as you’ll meet anywhere and will be happy to show in to parts of his brewery that most sake makers wouldn’t dream of letting tourists see. Although, if it’s busy you may well be asked to lend a hand! ;)

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama Brewery is named after it’s owner and is located not far from Shimoimaichi Train Station (a short taxi ride or a slightly long walk away). Here you can not only do tours of the brewery but you can enjoy free tastings of the sake that will have you seeing the brew more like fine wine than the rocket fuel like stuff that is often served overseas. If you are feeling like splashing out, try the specially made version of his best and most popular sake that has platinum and gold flakes in it. Though if you set off the metal detector at the airport upon your departure don’t blame me!

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some 'omotenashi' at one of Kinugawa's Hot Spring Resorts

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some ‘omotenashi’ at one of Kinugawa’s Hot Spring Resorts

At the end of a day of walking and sake tasting, I can think of few better things to do than relaxing in a hot spring and tucking into some Japanese fine cuisine. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to do this in Nikko’s National Park. The Kinugawa Grand Hotel (picture above and below) is just such a place. For a fraction of what a similar type of place would cost in Tokyo, you can be spoiled to your heart’s content. Though you aren’t likely to encounter many English speakers here, you can be sure that you will be welcomed with open arms and a deep bow upon your arrival. Enjoy some of Nikko’s craft beer and a big plate of sashimi and take in the beautiful surroundings in your Japanese style room.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

 

Wacky Dining: Tokyo’s Top Ten Weirdest Restaurants

Strange fads, outrageous fashions, incomprehensible crazes… Japan has achieved worldwide fame for being “weird.”

Say this to some people and they will roll their eyes and assure you that Japan is not as strange as you think. And many ways they are right: the famously crazy fashion trends of Harajuku have long passed their zenith and the notorious knicker-vending machines are (thankfully) now nowhere to be seen. Japan is a place of abundant culture and fascinating heritage – perhaps focusing too much on the “weird” is reductive. What with the boom years long behind it, is Japan no weirder than any other country?

If such is the case, then somebody evidently forgot to tell Japan’s restaurant scene. Tokyo has a dazzling array of fine dining options and holds more Michelin stars than Paris – but it is the city’s themed restaurants that really take the biscuit. Starting with the prison-hospital-themed Alcatraz E.R. about fifteen years ago, Tokyo’s madcap diners have gone from strength to strength, running the gamut from Thunderbirds-themed diners to restaurants where you catch your own dinner, to eateries where you nibble at pieces of sushi plucked delicately from gashes in the side of a papier maché corpse.* Now tell me that’s not weird.

This extraordinary culinary eccentricity is unmatched worldwide, and shows no sign of abating. The following is my personal pick of the ten weirdest, funniest and most downright nauseating out of some quite surprisingly stiff competition:

Sakuragaoka

Ever since the first branch opened in London in 2013, cat cafés are decidedly old hat. Dog cafés and rabbit cafés – been there, done that. For those seeking a more unusual furry companion with whom to share some lettuce and maybe a cup of coffee, why not visit Sakuragaoka – a goat café in the heart of Shibuya?

Feeding on of the goats (named Chocolat and Sakura) at Sakurgaoka

Feeding on of the goats (named Chocolat and Sakura) at Sakurgaoka

Modern Toilet 

OK, so this restaurant chain didn’t originate in Japan – it actually started in Taiwan (itself a frontrunner in the utterly bizarre dining experience stakes). Nonetheless, Modern Toilet has spread to Japan and is apparently a roaring success in Tokyo, though I for one am at a loss to understand why. As part of this frankly rather repugnant culinary experience, customers eat their food seated on actual (non-working) loos and eat their food (which, naturally, all resembles poo or vomit) out of a variety of loo-shaped receptacles. I can’t say that eating faecal matter is at the top of my to-do list, so maybe some other time…

Yummy...

Toilet humour

The Lockup

Along the same lines as the venerable Alcatraz E. R., the Lockup is Tokyo’s prison-themed restaurant du jour. If being dragged screaming and handcuffed through a genuinely terrifying house-of-horrors-style corridor, locked in a cell and fed plates of food shaped like eyeballs with cocktails served in syringes, this is the dining experience for you. And if you really like eating body parts, why not head to Tachibana Shinsatsushitsu (that’s “Examination Room” to you and me) in the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku for a medical-themed drink and some tasty sides served up in kidney dishes?

 

Robot Restaurant 

Reportedly kitted out to the tune of 10 billion yen, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is the all-flashing, breast-wielding, epilepsy-inducing dining experience that everyone is talking about. In terms of food you’re decidedly not in for a treat (you’ll find better fare at your local convenience store for a fraction of the price), but boy is the show worth it. Scantily-clad women, scantily-clad robots, tanks, sharks… you name it, the Robot Restaurant has it wearing a bikini and covered in lights. This is Japan as it was in the boom years, and we love it.

robot

Christon Café

Nothing says a great night out like the Catholic Church, so why not pull up a pew or sequester yourself in a confessional at Christon Café? Here you’ll find fancy Asian-European fusion cuisine, a variety of religious iconography, the occasional all-night fetish party and, if you were raised a Catholic, possibly a sensation of mild dread. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then you obviously don’t know how to have a good time.

christon

Vowz 

Sticking with the religious theme, Vowz is a Tokyo bar serving a heady mixture of booze and Buddhism with blue neon backlighting. Run by real robe-wearing, shaven-headed monks, this is a place where Tokyoites can come to drink cocktails and listen to some good old-fashioned chanting and sermons instead of that rubbish music that everyone else seems to be so keen on. Different strokes, different folks.

Buddha Bar

Maid Cafés 

The archetypal Japanese themed dining experience, Maid Cafés have long moved past the realm of faddishness and into permanent fixture territory. You only have to take a few steps through nerdtastic Akihabara to stumble across a maid enticing you to her establishment, and the offerings range from the cutesy and innocent to the very odd indeed. Be treated like the master of the house, say some magic words over your smiling ketchup-decorated food, play board games, pose for a photo – the maids at some Maid Cafés will blow on your food and feed it to you, or even ask you maths questions and give you a slap round the face when you get them wrong. (This, apparently, does float some people’s boats, and who am I to judge them?)

mad
 cutefood

Mr. Kanso

Mr. Kanso started in Osaka in 2002 and became so inexplicably successful that it now boasts seventeen outlets across Japan – including, of course, Tokyo. Mr. Kanso has no menus, only shelves stacked with hundreds of different types of canned food from across the globe. Customers choose from such delicacies as “Todo niku kare” (sealion curry), canned cocktail sausages, French salad, and whale meat (tut tut, Mr. Kanso) – all served cold in a can and gobbled up with plastic cutlery. Apparently it’s the variety that keeps customers coming back for more… Well it must be something.

Mr Kanso

Zauo

At Zauo, customers are seated in a giant, fake wooden boat and have to reel in their own meal from the surrounding “ocean” using fishing rods. After you’ve landed your catch, you can choose how to have it cooked! It may be gimmicky, but it’s definitely fantastic fun, and can be found in several cities across Japan.

zauo

Ninja Akasaka

Ninja Akasaka combines top-notch Japanese cuisine with (you guessed it) a ninja theme. Waiters and waitresses dressed as assassins sneak up on you with menus and the wood-panelled restaurant is kitted out to resemble the inside of a Japanese castle. The in-house magician will keep you entertained with a repertoire of tricks whilst you wait – the whole enterprise is just extremely enjoyable and very well geared for tourists. Not the cheapest of themed restaurants in Tokyo, but a great one for families!

 

Some of the restaurants and bars that didn’t make it on to this top ten include the video game-themed Capcom Bar and a Gundam Café, the train-themed Little TGV, the Vampire Café, an Alice in Wonderland restaurant, sumo and samurai restaurants, Yurei Izakaya with its ghostly waiters, a school lunch-themed eatery, Biohazard Café and Grill, Arabian Rock (from the loons who brought you Alcatraz E. R.), The Wizard of the Opera, Princess Heart (the names speak for themselves really) – not to mention the themed diners across the rest of Japan.

Try some out next time you’re in Japan!

 

* OK, so the corpse sushi turned out to be a hoax. But in the context of the above it wouldn’t be entirely surprising!

My First Dive in Japan

Having never dived before, I found the idea of plunging down to 12m below the sea a little daunting at first. What if my ears can’t cope with it? Are there sharks in Ishigaki? Jellyfish!? Luckily the reassuring staff at Umikoza Dive School were able to answer all of my silly questions and explain the whole diving process in perfect English. After I arrived at the dive centre and changed into the provided wetsuit, I was taken down to the boat with the other people who would be diving that day, which is where I met Ako-san. Clearly a seasoned pro, Ako-san took me through all of the various functions of the diving kit as we sped away from the stunning Kabira Bay and out to the rather deep-looking sea.

Ready Steady Dive

As we arrived at the dive spot, it became clear that the other customers on the boat were vastly more experienced than me as they began assembling their gear as putting it on in a confident and controlled manner. I nearly fell over backwards as I put on the 10kg air tank. But as ever Ako-san was there to help, and after an extremely inelegant backward roll into the water, we were under way.

The mask was perhaps a little too tight!

The mask was perhaps a little too tight!

The thing that struck me most was how clear the water is. As we descended we paused briefly to equalise the pressure as Ako-san had showed me, and before long I was off exploring the sea bed.

Under the Sea

With Ako-san close behind, I wondered the depths admiring the plentiful multicoloured fish. I came across one particularly grumpy-looking specimen, which, as my inquisitive hand drew close to it, tried to take a bit out of my finger. Luckily the creature did not have any teeth, so I just felt a strange sensation from the brief contact it made with my hand. Nevertheless I let out a gasp, the bubbles from which must have added to the comedy as they rushed from my mask. Ako-san asked me if I was OK by making a round shape with her thumb and index finger, a gesture which I was supposed to emulate, but in the heat of the moment I got it wrong and issued the “thumbs up” sign, which in diving means that you want to return to the surface. “No” I corrected myself, causing more bubbles, and I finally managed to return the “fingers round” sign to assure her that I was in fact safe and sound.

Whos watching who

We spent around three quarters of an hour exploring the relatively shallow area and I loved every minute of it.

Ishigaki underwater views

We then got back on the boat and moved to a different area, about 20 minutes away. This spot is known as a manta “cleaning station’, where lots of manta are come each day to be “cleaned’ by other smaller fish. I was not able to dive at this place as it was too deep to dive with out a licence, but I and a few others set off with some snorkels. After about half an hour with no luck, we decided to head back to the boat. On the way back the person in front of me started pointing excitedly to our left. I looked around and saw in the distance an enormous black silhouette shape of a manta ray gliding majestically through the water. It was a pretty unforgettable moment!

Manta

After the two sessions, my first diving experience was over, and we began heading back to the beautiful shoreline. It was a truly unforgettable experience and I would recommend it to anyone – just be prepared for a surprise if you get your fingers too close to grumpy-looking fish!

InsideJapan Tours organise diving trips for beginners and advanced divers. If you are looking for a completely new dive experience, Japan combines stunning corals, varied marine life, amazing visibility, some truly unique dive sites and a very different culture above the water.

 

Historic Mountain Trails – A Picture Blog

InsideJapan Tours’ intrepid tour leader, Steve Parker, is a keen mountain walker and with Japan being made up of mountains (70% of the country is mountainous), it’s the perfect place for him. Having taken people around Japan for quite a few years now, he designed a tour that he wanted to do and in July this year, the “Historic Mountain Trails” tour took on Tokyo, the Nakasendo Way, the beautiful but unforgiving Japanese Alps, conquered Mt Fuji along with a slice of culture in Kyot, the castle city of Matsumoto and soaked in the hot springs of Hakone. The tour is not exactly a stroll in the hills, but includes some pretty serious hikes with plenty of breath-taking scenery. So in Steve’s own words and pictures, here’s the Historic Mountain Trails….

On Historic Mountain Trail tour this summer, we experienced the bustle of Tokyo...

On Historic Mountain Trail tour this summer, we experienced the bustle of Tokyo…

 

…then the serenity of the Kiso valley in less than 12 hours

…then the serenity of the Kiso valley in less than 12 hours

 

Kind Suzuki San runs the little midpoint rest house on the Nakasendo Highway walk between Magome and Tsumago village. A welcome cup of tea in this traditional rural shelter and a local folk song from our host took us back to an era centuries past.

Kind Suzuki San runs the little midpoint rest house on the Nakasendo Highway walk between Magome and Tsumago village. A welcome cup of tea in this traditional rural shelter and a local folk song from our host took us back to an era centuries past.

 

The local (Shiba) dogs are friendly too

The local (Shiba) dogs are friendly too

 

The 5 mile Kiso valley walk is a tranquil trail through forest and hamlets. Summer here is hot and humid so a welcome natural shower under the Otaki waterfalls is an invigorating way to cool off!

The 5 mile Kiso valley walk is a tranquil trail through forest and hamlets. Summer here is hot and humid so a welcome natural shower under the Otaki waterfalls is an invigorating way to cool off!

 

The first afternoon of hiking along the pristine Azusa River is flat and shaded. You can even buy soft ice cream at the rest huts en-route to Yokoo Hut!

The first afternoon of hiking along the pristine Azusa River is flat and shaded. You can even buy soft ice cream at the rest huts en-route to Yokoo Hut!

Yokoo Hut - the first night of "shared accommodation". Bunk beds and earplugs - a perfect night's sleep before the tough trail tomorrow(??)

Yokoo Hut – the first night of “shared accommodation”. Bunk beds and earplugs – a perfect night’s sleep before the tough trail tomorrow(??)

 

After the river the trail steepens and becomes rockier underfoot.

After the river the trail steepens and becomes rockier underfoot.

 

Then its crampons on and hiking over snowfield for several hundred metres

Then its crampons on and hiking over snowfield for several hundred metres

 

Karesawa Lodge (2300m) - a mid valley "opt-out" accommodation  for those too tired to make it all the way to the top of Okuhotaka Peak

Karesawa Lodge (2300m) – a mid valley “opt-out” accommodation for those too tired to make it all the way to the top of Okuhotaka Peak

 

A nice place to stay if you opt out of the push to the top.

A nice place to stay if you opt out of the push to the top. Just ask for a room with a view!

 

Tackling the Zaitengrad  - a rocky spine that stretches down from the Hotaka hut - plenty of scrambling...

Tackling the Zaitengrad – a rocky spine that stretches down from the Hotaka hut – plenty of scrambling…

 

…with the help of chains and a few small ladders, but no technical climbing ability is necessary.

…with the help of chains and a few small ladders, but no technical climbing ability is necessary.

 

Hotaka Sansou Hut in the gloomy afternoon mist. Food and bedding at 3000m.

Hotaka Sansou Hut in the gloomy afternoon mist. Food and bedding at 3000m.

 

Hotaka Sansou Hut is actually perched spectacularly between Karesawa Peak and Okuhotaka Peak at just under 3000m. One of dozens of fantastically serviced huts in the region. Be warned though, your helicopter-delivered beer will set you back a little more than usual!

Hotaka Sansou Hut is actually perched spectacularly between Karesawa Peak and Okuhotaka Peak at just under 3000m. One of dozens of fantastically serviced huts in the region. Be warned though, your helicopter-delivered beer will set you back a little more than usual!

 

Hotaka Hut reception and dining area...

Hotaka Hut reception and dining area…

 

Hotaka Hut, now 90 years old, can accommodate 200 people, serve hot dinner and breakfast, and provide fresh drinking water and snacks. The drying rooms  are great - there are even foot warming stoves to enjoy!

Hotaka Hut, now 90 years old, can accommodate 200 people, serve hot dinner and breakfast, and provide fresh drinking water and snacks. The drying rooms are great – there are even foot warming stoves to enjoy!

 

The lounge area in Hotaka mountain hut is the perfect place to get talking to local hikers, and warm up, after a tough day on the trail.

The lounge area in Hotaka mountain hut is the perfect place to get talking to local hikers, and warm up, after a tough day on the trail.

 

My Hotaka Hut bedroom - futon and quilts on a tatami (rush straw mat) floor - cosy and warm  - we were lucky having a 6 person room to just 4 of us.

My Hotaka Hut bedroom – futon and quilts on a tatami (rush straw mat) floor – cosy and warm – we were lucky having a 6 person room to just 4 of us.

 

At last, after an ascent where it was hardly worth getting the camera out - the Karesawa Valley below Hotaka Hut shows itself in the early morning light! The group had little idea of how gorgeous this valley is until this point!

At last, after an ascent where it was hardly worth getting the camera out – the Karesawa Valley below Hotaka Hut shows itself in the early morning light! The group had little idea of how gorgeous this valley is until this point!

 

Considerable scrambling required near the Okuhotaka Summit

Considerable scrambling required near the Okuhotaka Summit

 

Okuhotaka Summit - Japan's 3rd highest at 3190m.

Okuhotaka Summit – Japan’s 3rd highest at 3190m.

 

And there's the proof. The shrine on top is typical of many mountains in Japan - home to the gods and historically the domain of pilgrims and priests until the late 1800s

And there’s the proof. The shrine on top is typical of many mountains in Japan – home to the gods and historically the domain of pilgrims and priests until the late 1800s

 

Time to get a few shots whilst the weather is kind at the summit!

Time to get a few shots whilst the weather is kind at the summit!

 

Views from Okuhotaka Peak

Views from Okuhotaka Peak

 

SONY DSC

Maehotaka Peak – not today, maybe next year!

 

Steady descending on Zaitengrad's challenging boulders

Time to descend – 8-10 hours. Tricky descending on Zaitengrad’s challenging boulders

 

Tackling the 'Zaitengrad' boulders on descent.

The morning heat and tricky rocks make for steady progress.

 

As the legs and mind are weary, forest cover eases the way, on the final 2 hour stretch downstream and back to the hotel area in Kamikochi.

As the legs and mind become weary, flat trail and forest cover eases the way, on the final 2 hour stretch downstream and back to the hotel area in Kamikochi.

 

A troop of Macaque Monkeys  - often found around the forested lower Azusa river valley, greeted a number of our hikers near the hotel.

A troop of Macaque Monkeys – often found around the forested lower Azusa river valley, greeted a number of our hikers near the hotel.

 

This was the view up the Dakesawa Valley that welcomed us after a long 10 hour descent. One last photo before check-in at the riverside hotel - hot spring baths, futon and a French meal awaiting us!

This was the view up the Dakesawa Valley that welcomed us after a long 10 hour descent. One last photo before check-in at the riverside hotel – hot spring baths, futon and a French meal awaiting us!

 

Matsumoto is surely one of Japan's finest little cities. After time in the hills a little culture can be absorbed here  - the 16th century castle with the Alpine setting in the background from our previous days' endeavors. There is also a fantastic woodblock print gallery and charming old merchant streets to enjoy. I may live here one day!

Matsumoto is surely one of Japan’s finest little cities. After time in the hills a little culture can be absorbed here – the 16th century castle with the Alpine setting in the background from our previous days’ endeavors. There is also a fantastic woodblock print gallery and charming old merchant streets to enjoy. I may live here one day!

 

Never guaranteed, but we managed to book afternoon tea at a local teahouse, fortunate enough to enjoy a dance performance, chatting and playing drinking games with a 'maiko' - a trainee geisha.

Never guaranteed, but we managed to book afternoon tea at a local teahouse in Kyoto, fortunate enough to enjoy a dance performance, chatting and playing drinking games with a ‘maiko’ – a trainee geisha.

 

The greener, quieter Subashiri trail on Mt Fuji is where most of the hike is completed, rising from 2000m to around 3400m in just 5 hours. Dinner at 6, bed at 7:30 and up again the next morning at 2 for the final 2.5 hour push to the summit.

The greener, quieter Subashiri trail on Mt Fuji is where most of the hike is completed, rising from 2000m to around 3400m in just 5 hours. Dinner at 6, bed at 7:30 and up again the next morning at 2 for the final 2.5 hour push to the summit.

 

Here comes the sun - on top of the "Land of the Rising Sun" (3776m) - what everyone has hiked up Mt Fuji to see. The breaking of a new day from above.

Here comes the sun – on top of the “Land of the Rising Sun” (3776m) – what everyone has hiked up Mt Fuji to see. The breaking of a new day from above.

 

You never get lonely on Mt Fuji. We were lucky enough to hike behind chanting Buddhist Monks during our final push to the top.

You never get lonely on Mt Fuji. We were lucky enough to hike behind chanting Buddhist Monks during our final push to the top.

 

Sun, sun , sun - her it comes!

Sun, sun , sun – her it comes!

 

A peek inside the crater - even in the height of summer, a little snow remains in patches within the crater. All is peaceful below, for now!

A peek inside the crater – even in the height of summer, a little snow remains in patches within the crater. All is peaceful below, for now!

 

The beautiful shadow cast by Mt Fuji in the early morning. A treat on a clear day for those that circuit the crater rim.

The beautiful shadow cast by Mt Fuji in the early morning. A treat on a clear day for those that circuit the crater rim.

 

Glorious views down to Kawaguchi Lake and its surrounding mountains. The descent typically takes 3-4 hours on loose volcanic scree

Glorious views down to Kawaguchi Lake and its surrounding mountains.
The descent typically takes 3-4 hours on loose volcanic scree

 

 

After a long Fuji descent few make it beyond the hot spring bath house and bed before dinner - for those with a little more energy, the Hakone Open Air Sculpture park never fails to impress

    After a long Fuji descent few make it beyond the hot spring bath house and soft bed for an afternoon nap before dinnertime – for those with a little more energy, however,  the Hakone Open Air Sculpture park never fails to impress

 

Oh, and then it was back to this - a final sendoff in the neon of Tokyo.

Oh, and then it was back for final sendoff in the exhilarating neon of Tokyo’s mega cool Shinjuku district. The full circle of adventure complete!

 

 

 

AKB48: The Surprising Truth Behind the World’s Biggest Band

They’re one of the most successful pop acts in the world, and yet unless you’ve ever been to Japan you’ve probably never even heard of them. Just who, exactly, are AKB48?

AKB is short for Akihabara, an area of Tokyo known primarily for cheap electronics, comic book stores, Maid Cafés, and… ahem… adult goods. It is here that AKB48, a band that started life with 48 members but whose ranks have since swelled to a staggering 140, maintain their own theatre and perform to their fans every single night.

akiba1

In a minute I’ll get to telling you just how AKB48 launched their coup de grace on the hearts and minds of millions – but first let me give some introduction to the world of J-Pop (that’s Japanese pop music) and the Japanese “idol” craze.

Now, this is a subject that deserves a blog post of its very own – and it will get one in good time – but for now the very briefest of backgrounds will have to suffice. Idols, or “aidoru” (アイドル) as they are referred to in Japanese, are young pop stars and actors who are plucked from obscurity by entertainment agencies and, despite relatively little obvious talent, are catapulted from girl- or boy-next-door to being idolised to the pitch of hysteria by legions of screaming, wild-eyed, glowstick-waving fans.

Sylvie Vartan, a French singer who became extremely popular in Japan during the 1970s, is sometimes credited with triggering the "idol" craze

Sylvie Vartan, a French singer who became extremely popular in Japan during the 1960s, is sometimes credited with triggering the “idol” craze

The prerequisites for being an idol are youth, cuteness, and a squeaky-clean public record. (Notice how I didn’t mention talent). Now, you may think that in criticising idols’ lack of talent I’m letting my own (impeccable, I might say) musical tastes eclipse my impartial evaluation of their musical worth. I mean, just because you don’t like listening to Mozart doesn’t mean he isn’t good, right?

But this isn’t just that I prefer Metallica to Morning Musume (though obviously I do). Mediocrity is written into the whole concept behind AKB48.

AKB48 is no ordinary pop group – they are “idols you can meet”. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2011, the pop group’s creator, Yasushi Akimoto, explained that “AKB48 girls are ‘unfinished.’ In other words, they’re still not very good at singing or dancing.”

It sounds like a poor concept for a band, but Akimoto is no fool.

Yasushi Akimoto, the man behind it all

Yasushi Akimoto, the man behind it all

Akimoto hoped that this very mundanity would be the key to the band’s success, and by gum was he on the money. Giving young fans idols that they could relate to, whose progress and improvement they could follow from “trainee” members to “graduates” – whom they could actually meet for themselves at the band’s various “handshake events” – has turned AKB48 into a social phenomenon.

An AKB48 fan meets one of his idols at a "handshake event". These events were cancelled earlier in 2014 after two band members were attacked by a man wielding a saw at one of the events. The girls sustained minor injuries and the events were resumed with increased security in July.

An AKB48 fan meets one of his idols at a “handshake event”. These events were cancelled earlier in 2014 after two band members were attacked by a man wielding a saw at one of the events. The girls sustained minor injuries and the events were resumed with increased security in July.

This staggering success has seen Akimoto’s protégés – who began as a group of 48 but now number no less than 140 – become officially the biggest pop group in the world. Such has been their success that they now have no fewer than 11 sister acts based in other Japanese cities and even in other Asian countries, including SKE48 (based in Nagoya’s Sakae district), NMB48 (of Osaka’s Namba district) and JKT48 (of Jakarta, Indonesia).

And this isn't even all of them....

And this isn’t even all of them….

So AKB48 is a girl band with 140 members. Logistically, how on earth does that even work?

Unlike mainstream bands who subsist on gigs and arena tours, AKB48 have their own theatre in Tokyo where they perform to their legions every single night. Of course, nobody has the stamina to actually fulfil such a punishing schedule, so the band itself is split up into teams of around 18 members who split the duties amongst themselves.

Again, unlike mainstream bands, the list of members of AKB48 is constantly rolling. All the girls are aged between 13 and their early 20s, and when members outgrow the group they move on to become “graduates”. There is also a rolling ranking system within the group, and fans are encouraged to choose a favourite member to support in the televised elections that are held to determine the rankings within the group each year. To obtain a ballot, fans must first purchase the “election single.” It is, quite simply, marketing genius – and AKB48 singles can sell over a million copies in their release day alone.

Add to this a collection of TV shows (including “AKBINGO!”, “Weekly AKB”, and “Naruhodo Highschool”), their own manga comic book series, a monthly newspaper and a collection of video games and you have an economic powerhouse of enormous proportions. AKB48 even feature on a Japanese postage stamp!

AKB 1/48 - a dating simulation game based on the island of Guam

AKB 1/48 – a dating simulation game based on the island of Guam

All of this is quite remarkable in itself, but AKB48 gets more interesting still.

The band has courted controversy in the past with some of their lyrics and videos. One of the songs to have come under scrutiny is “Seifu ga Jama o Suru” (“My school uniform is getting in the way”) for its racy lyrics, and the vaguely provocative video for the 2010 megahit “Heavy Rotation” (in reference to when a song gets overplayed on the radio – i.e. it gets played on “heavy rotation”).

 

OK, so some of the lyrics and costumes are a little risqué when you consider how young some of the band members are, but there’s nothing outright shocking here. What is particularly interesting is that despite their raunchy lyrics and recurring themes of love and dating (including several dating simulation games featuring their images) AKB48 girls themselves are not allowed to date.

One of the girls, 20-year-old Minami Minegishi, caused controversy in 2013 when she was photographed leaving her boyfriend’s apartment after having allegedly spent the night there. AKB members who break the rules are considered to have betrayed their fans by tarnishing the illusion of their purity (and, crucially, their availability), and for her infraction Minegishi was accordingly demoted to bottom-ranked “research student”.

The odd love scandal is not unusual for AKB48 members, a few of whom have had to “graduate” or transfer to less popular sister groups in the past as a result of similar scandals, but it didn’t stop there. Minegishi’s case drew world headlines because of what she did next – shaving her head (a traditional Japanese gesture of contrition) and releasing a tearful four-minute video in which she makes a grovelling apology for her actions.

The video was posted on the group’s official website but has since been removed amid unconfirmed accusations that Minegishi had been forced into the act of repentance by her management.

Minami Minegishi in her apology video, in which she says "I don't believe that just by doing this will be forgiven for what I did"

Minami Minegishi in her apology video, in which she says “I don’t believe that just by doing this will be forgiven for what I did”

Leaving aside the question of whether it is ethical to forbid a group of teenagers and young adults from any kind of romantic encounter (no matter how innocent) on pain of demotion – is it even legal?

Opinion is divided on that count, with some legal commentators arguing on either side. For a discussion of the issue, you might turn to “Constitutionalism” – a book about the Japanese constitution co-written by an associate professor at Kyushu University School of Law and 18-year-old AKB48 member Natsuki Uchiyama. Yep, they’ve got their fingers in the politics pie as well. Uchiyama is known for reciting parts of the Japanese constitution onstage during performances (she knows the whole thing off by heart, if you can believe it), so I guess if anyone should know the answer it’d be her.

Natsuki Uchiyama: Crzy about the Constitution

Natsuki Uchiyama: Crazy about the Constitution

Other campaigns in which AKB48 have flexed their marketing oomph have been a Tokyo Metropolitan Police traffic safety campaign in 2010, a suicide prevention campaign in 2012, a military recruitment campaign and even a campaign to sell government bonds for tsunami relief.

Then things get stranger.

In 2011, AKB48 introduced a new member: Aimi Eguchi.

 

She’s pretty, cute, innocent – she ticks all the “idol” boxes. And none of those boxes stipulates that she has to be real.

Aimi Eguchi, as it turned out, was not an actual person but a computer-generated hybrid of the “best features” of six of her bandmates. This was not revealed to her fans until after she had already made her debut and appeared in a Glico advert on television.

I don’t know about you, but I’d have thought that telling your fans that one of their idols isn’t actually a person at all would be more crushing than anything poor old Minegishi ever did.

The AKB management team were obviously left to run amok on the CGI tools in 2011, because in the same year the band released a promotional internet service called “AKB Official Net”, with a feature that allows fans to combine their own face with that of their favourite AKB48 member to create a hypothetical lovechild. It’s called AKBaby, and the advertisement features a photo of band member Yuko Oshima breastfeeding a baby, with the caption “Want to make a baby with me?”

Weird? I don't even know where to begin.

Weird? I don’t even know where to begin.

Proponents argue that AKB48 offers fans the chance to feel closer to their idols, providing good role models for their young followers and giving the girls themselves fifteen minutes in the spotlight that they can use as a platform to launch their future success. Nay-sayers cry exploitation and moneygrubbing. Whichever camp you fall into, there’s no denying that in terms of sheer popularity, AKB48 is onto a winning combination.

If you’d like to get a piece of the AKB action on your visit to Japan, you’ll need to enter a ticket raffle by email from one month in advance. Visit the girls’ official website for details. InsideJapan can of course assist with the process, but cannot guarantee tickets.

 

Could Studio Ghibli be closing its doors forever?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard of Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985 by the anime directors Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, Ghibli has produced 20 feature-length films, several short films, some television advertisements and one television film. The chances are you’ve seen more than one of the studio’s great classics, which include Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro, and Princess Mononoke.

Spirited Away, 2001

Spirited Away, 2001

Amongst a great many accolades, Ghibli has five films featured in the IMDB top 250, eight films amongst the 15 highest-grossing anime films of all time in Japan, the first animated feature to gross over 10 billion yen at the Japanese box office, and the first animated film ever to win a National Academy Award for best picture (Princess Mononoke, 1997).

Not only has the studio enjoyed phenomenal domestic triumphs, but in 2002 it was catapulted to worldwide fame when Spirited Away became the only foreign-made film ever to win an Oscar for best animated picture.

Ghibli is an unadulterated success story, and its figurehead, Miyazaki, is considered by many to be the finest animator of all time. His latest film, The Wind Rises, grossed 11.6 billion yen in Japan alone and was the country’s biggest box office success of 2013.

The Wind Rises, 2013

The Wind Rises, 2013

So why on earth would it be closing its doors now?

Actually, there are a number of possible reasons.

For a start, box office takings are only half of the story. Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki has recently stated that each film takes 300 staff two years and about 5 billion yen (about $50 million USD) to create – which means that breaking even is no mean feat even when your film is the highest-grossing feature of the year.

Secondly, and perhaps most persuasively, Hayao Miyazaki himself frequently plays the harbinger of doom.

Miyazaki: harbinger of doom for the traditional animation industry

Miyazaki: harbinger of doom for the traditional animation industry

A self-professed pessimist, Miyazaki has been forecasting the end of Ghibli and the death of traditional hand-drawn animation for years. In an interview with the Guardian as far back as 2005, Miyazaki exhibited his own “serene and contented brand of fatalism” when he told interviewer Xan Brooks that:

“If it is a dying craft we can’t do anything about it. Civilisation moves on. Where are all the fresco painters now? Where are the landscape artists? What are they doing now? The world is changing. I have been very fortunate to be able to do the same job for 40 years. That’s rare in any era.”

And in an interview for the forthcoming documentary on Studio Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki states the following:

“The future [of Ghibli] is clear. It’s going to fall apart. I can already see it. What’s the use worrying? It’s inevitable. Ghibli is just a random name I got from an airplane. It’s just a name.”

Given Miyazaki’s unambiguous pessimism, perhaps it’s unsurprising that rumours of Studio Ghibli’s demise have been circulating in the anime world for quite some time – but it wasn’t until an interview with Toshio Suzuki on the Japanese TV show Jonetsu Tairiku last weekend that the blogosphere exploded with clamouring accounts of the studio’s imminent downfall.

Still from Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, 2008

Still from Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, 2008

Are these death throes of Ghibli?

Luckily for film-lovers everywhere, perhaps not. As Kotaku explains, Suzuki does not explicitly say that the studio will close for good – but the company is undoubtedly in for a big change.

Using the terms “ooshoji” (“spring cleaning”) and “shokyuusi” (implying a “pause” or “breather” rather than a full halt), Suzuki suggests that Ghibli will be taking a break from production to restructure the company and reassess the direction in which they wish to move in the future.

He cites Miyazaki’s retirement as the primary factor influencing the hiatus, asking “after that, what should Ghibli do?”. It’s time to “take a short rest and think about what’s next”.

My Neighbour Totoro, 1988: one of Ghibli's best-loved creations

My Neighbour Totoro, 1988: one of Ghibli’s best-loved creations

Who should we believe – Suzuki or Miyazaki?

Revered genius as he may be, there is a very good reason for not believing anything Hayao Miyazaki says.

To date, conservative estimates suggest that Miyazaki has announced his retirement a whopping six times, each time only to eat his words and go on to make another film.

Despite the fact that he has told fans that he is “quite serious” this time, even his friend and Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata, has said to the press that:

“…I think there is a decent chance that may change. I think so, since I’ve known him a long time. Don’t be at all surprised if that happens.”

So calm down anime fans – the show *might* go on!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 228 other followers